A Little Town in South Dakota
“I realized I had seen and lived it all—all the successive phases of the frontier, first the frontiersman, then the pioneer, then the farmers and the towns.”
In 1879 the family moved to DeSmet, South Dakota, where Laura spent the remainder of her childhood. These years were difficult for the family, but they were also important in shaping Laura’s later life as a writer.
Just before the move, Laura’s sister Mary had a fever that caused her to go blind, so Laura took on the extra responsibility of caring for Mary and serving as her eyes.
In their second year in South Dakota, a string of blizzards set in that threatened the town’s survival. Laura’s family ran out of food and wood. In order to make flour, they had to take turns grinding wheat in a coffee grinder. They also wound together tufts of hay very tightly, so they could burn it for heat. Charles had to string a clothesline between the house and the barn so he would not get lost in the snow. The town was saved when two young men, including Laura’s future husband, Almanzo Wilder, risked their lives by going out into the country to bring in a sled full of wheat.
Everywhere they lived, when they had the opportunity, Laura’s parents took their children to church and enrolled them in school. Caroline was a former school teacher, and she made sure there was always something around the house for the girls to read, especially the Bible.
Laura attended high school in DeSmet and stood out from her classmates as the best scholar. Although she never graduated from high school—both because DeSmet did not have a full twelve-year education program and because she committed herself to fulltime teaching—Laura came away from school with a lifelong love of learning.
In 1882 Laura got her first teaching job in a community near DeSmet. Almanzo Wilder gave her rides in a buggy to and from the school every week, and the two struck up a friendship. Their relationship soon turned romantic and they were married on August 25, 1885.
Aside from the birth of their daughter, Rose, in 1886, the young couple was plagued by a series of disasters in their first four years of marriage. First, hail destroyed their wheat crop and then their barn burned, along with the grain and hay they stored in it. Next, both Laura and Almanzo contracted diphtheria, which left Almanzo partially paralyzed. He walked with a cane and struggled with poor health for the rest of his life. Then they lost two wheat crops to drought, which was followed by the death of their two-week-old son. Two weeks later, their house burned, along with most of their possessions.
After short stints living in Minnesota and Florida, Laura and Almanzo moved back to DeSmet, where Laura worked as a dressmaker and Almanzo was a carpenter.